Designers and clients are understandably spooked. In private, some designers speak of clients who refuse daring work. In public, they gently rue the armchair critiques that undermine months, sometimes years, of work. Others are more forthright. ‘I think the Internet and the press should shut up and allow the identities to find their audiences,’ says Paula Scher, a partner at Pentagram and the mind behind Shake Shack’s branding among many others. ‘They will ultimately determine the success and failure.’
Setting aside that surprisingly combative “get off my lawn” attitude, what this article really gets at is the current state of design criticism, at least insofar as it entails the discussion of the craft of corporate branding. In the past, before broadly public channels for airing one’s thoughts on new logos became ubiquitous, most critical assessment of this kind of work happened within the pages of trade journals. On occasion, if a logo was particularly noteworthy or egregious, awareness and debate might seep out into the public, but that was rare.
Now we have a public square for discussion of corporate identities, its bright, unsparing light can be deeply uncomfortable for a profession that for most of its history largely entailed designers and executives sending signals to other designers and executives. Part of this discomfort lies in the fact that, more so than most flavors of arts criticism, this particular public square is full of people who are both poorly equipped to constructively appraise branding and who feel more empowered than ever to pass judgment on it. That sounds derogatory, like I’m saying that the masses are not qualified to thoughtfully consider branding, but that’s not my intention at all. I state it merely as a fact; the conversation around design has changed materially in the past two decades, and nothing will return us to that state in which identities are left to their own devices to “find their audiences.”
What this underscores, though, is the idea that, more than ever, we need a solid foundation for the thoughtful consideration of design. If we’re going to have this much attention paid to new corporate identities, we need to begin building an inclusive, plainspoken framework for how we talk about new logos, new design systems, new experiences rooted in the craft of design.
A lot of that can come from having a recognized role for critics. Though many people dismiss that profession as elitist, having a class of non-practitioners dedicated to examining the ideas behind a craft is incredibly useful to engendering a robust, thoughtful public square—just look at the way critics help shape how we think about art, architecture and film.
There are of course plenty of designers who write incisively about design, but that’s not the same thing at all. To be a practicing designer makes it very difficult to avoid being compromised by the clientele you’re trying to build, or the professional networks that you’re trying to grow, all in the name of career opportunity. Writing objectively about the work of other designers you know for other companies you may want to work for one day is really difficult. What’s needed is independence, and design has a relatively paltry number of truly independent critics at all; fewer still who don’t spend most of their time talking about architecture and industrial design; and almost none who write for respected, high profile, general interest publications. If we ever want to see design turn into a truly mature art form and to have design work appreciated and critiqued in substantive fashion, we’ll need to elevate criticism to the next level.